Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, William Hurt
MPAA Rating: (for violence and language)
Running Time: 2:06
Release Date: 11/23/05 (limited); 12/9/05 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
With its focus entirely on politics and policy, Syriana is blind to its cinematic purposes. As an indictment of U.S. Middle Eastern policy in regards to oil, the movie feels like a one-note argument. At its simplest terms, the system is corrupt, and at its most complex, the system is corrupt, and nothing of value will come of it. One can't help but admire that kind of single-mindedness of intention at this stage in our history and writer-director Stephen Gaghan's thoroughly complex plot and tight direction that manages to maintain our understanding of the intricate story even, but there's an inherent zone-out factor to much of movie because so much of it exists on that two-dimensional plane of connecting plot with politics without any humanity to draw us in. Syriana is populated not with characters but with figureheads for some political position or another and they speak not in dialogue but in talking points. The result is the cinematic equivalent of a sound bite. Perhaps it sounds good or catchy at first, but there's nothing of lasting substance underneath. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, what the movie is about is honorable, but how it is about it is ultimately fairly hollow and pretty dull.
The movie opens in Tehran, where Bob Barnes (George Clooney), an undercover CIA agent, has just sold two missiles to terrorists. One of them is immediately given to another group, which was never part of his original deal, and the other is destroyed in a car bomb explosion along with the people who paid for it. Back in Washington, the agency sees nothing to do about the missing device and sends Bob off on his next job, with the promise of a promotion upon its completion. Elsewhere in Washington, attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is charged with the task of garnering information for the Justice Department regarding a merger between two giant oil companies that will open a huge operation in a country along the Persian Gulf. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an analyst, has been studying the potential merger in Geneva, and after a tragic event at a part thrown by Prince Nasir (Alex Siddig), the apparent successor to the throne in the disputed country, he is taken on as a consultant for the Prince's future economic dealings. Rounding out the setup are two migrant workers, Saleem Ahmed Kahn (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir), who have recently been laid off from one of those oil companies and look anywhere for a job.
To go any further in the plot would be to give too much away, but everything ends up connected and, as you can probably tell, it isn't going to have a happy ending. Most of the movie's run time is dedicated to fleshing out its intricate plot, weaving each of these storylines together, and the end result is an unaffecting tale of corruption, corruption, and more corruption. Gaghan fails to include a personal level to his indictment. The characters are talking heads, not people to care about, and there are only very small details about each of them meant to illuminate their humanity. Bob has an argument with his son Robby (Max Minghella) over college and Bob's estrangement from his wife. Bryan and his wife Julie (Amanda Peet) try to cope with the loss of their son, and she grows to despise (I suppose) the way he uses that loss for a business gain. Bennett's alcoholic father returns and causes him some heartache. That is the extent of an attempt at characterization for any of them, and it is simply not enough. When the movie is in its plot-spinning mode (which is the majority of the time), these characters act in its service, and even their actions are more motivated by Gaghan making a statement than the result of what they are like as people.
Instead, the movie is full of scenes illustrating generalized perceptions and points. Bryan tells the Prince and his cohorts what the Western world actually thinks of Arab countries: "We think a hundred years ago you were living out here in tents in the desert chopping each others head's off, and that's exactly where you're going to be in another hundred." The head of one of the oil companies played by Tim Blake Nelson has a long speech about the virtues of corruption, and in what seems a fairly unwise move, he presents it to the lawyer investigating the merger. Logic isn't necessary here, though, since all of these speeches are solely aimed at heightening Gaghan's argument. Somewhere amidst the rhetoric is one potentially fascinating angle—the portrait of the father and son in the Persian Gulf country. Here are two men with no strong religious beliefs who are driven by their economic circumstances (read unemployment) to join a fundamentalist group simply because that is where the work and shelter is. The ramifications are staggering, but in Gaghan's world, even their motivations and actions are exploited simply for the plot.
The finale in which all of these plot threads ultimately come together has a certain thematic impact in regards to the uselessness and cyclical nature of this economic Catch-22, but it comes too little, too late. Syriana is all about its plot in a cold, distancing way, and its plot is entirely in service of a simple, one-sided political thesis. Gaghan is clearly angered by the state of affairs, but his anger has lessened his dramatic voice, in a way defeating the goal he set out to achieve.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.